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Ike and the war on meat

Guest Blogger

Conservative historian Larry Schweikart presents a two-pronged lesson in his new book “Seven Events that Made America America: And Proved That the Founding Fathers Were Right All Along,” published this month by Sentinel. He discovers neglected, yet pivotal, events in American history and runs them through the filter of our founding principles. Schweikart shows that vewed through this lens these important moments in our history also reveal the importance of our values. When the values of individual liberty, private enterprise and small government are ignored, destiny-altering events have a negative impact on the nation. Among the developments Schweikart, a history professor at the University of Dayton, examines is Martin Van Buren’s role in swelling the ranks of the federal government and the Supreme Court’s action in the Dred Scott case that precipitated a financial panic. Here, he delves into how Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack set off years of misguided Federal involvement in American diets.

By Larry Schweikart

Funny how history repeats itself, and how the lessons are so obvious, and yet how often we ignore them.

At the turn of the last century, the United States was engaged in a grand undertaking, the construction of the Panama Canal. One little thing stood in our way -- and I mean little: the mosquito. Malaria and yellow fever ravaged construction workers attempting to carve out the canal. But Billy Gorgas, examining the research of others (much of it initiated by the U.S. Army) had identified the mosquito as the cause of the diseases and devised methods to combat and defeat it.

There was only one problem: Congress, with its own scientific “experts,” was certain that the mosquito wasn’t the culprit. “On the mosquito,” one congressional appointee to the Canal Commission told Gorgas, “you are simply wild. All those who agree with you are wild.” But Gorgas was right, and Congress -- with its experts -- was horrifically wrong.

Fast forward to the 1950s: in September 1955, while playing golf, President Dwight Eisenhower has a heart attack. This was possibly one of the most important medical cases of the 20th century because it began a process that fundamentally changed the way Americans viewed food. It spurred the “fat hypothesis” that heart attacks were caused by cholesterol and that fat and meat caused “bad” cholesterol. In turn, researchers such as Ancel Keys -- who quickly became a media darling -- offered research that “proved” that a low-fat, carb-heavy diet would prevent heart attacks.

Obediently, news sources and sympathetic researchers such as Jean Mayer of Harvard pointed to a “great epidemic” of cardiovascular disease, supposedly caused by Americans’ post-war increased intake of meats and fat.

There were numerous, and very serious, problems with these claims, not the least of which was that the research on which they were based was incomplete and extremely preliminary. Because medical testing had improved so greatly, symptoms that in previous years had not been ascribed to heart disease were now correctly linked.

The “epidemic” was really an epidemic of better testing. Worse, the notion that Americans ate less meat in the 19th century was absurd, and was disproved by almost any contemporary accounts. Nevertheless, in the 1950s, Keys conducted numerous uncontrolled tests on cholesterol and heart disease, insisting his position was validated. The press latched on, in part because the issue offered a chance for greater government involvement in the lives of Americans.

By the time the final research results had come in -- almost all of them contradicting or disproving Keys on the “fat hypothesis” -- it was too late: a template had been adopted in which fat was bad, carbs, good. Who can forget the famous Time magazine “smiley face” cover of two fried eggs and a strip of bacon?

From 1961 to 1977, a tidal wave of research on the causes of heart disease, diet, and cholesterol appeared, yet none of it produced any clear conclusions. There was no “consensus” (as if 50 people adhering to a wrong answer make it right). By 1977, the circle was completed when the McGovern Committee produced “Dietary Guidelines” for Americans that urged people to eat less meat and more carbohydrates. It is interesting that the “obesity epidemic” also appeared about that time.

When science and medicine are politicized -- whether with the Panama Canal, the fat hypothesis, or global warming, the results are almost always the same: bad policy, disastrous recommendations, and the infringement of human freedom. If Ike had seen how his medical condition was abused by the politicians, it would have caused him to have another heart attack.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  June 3, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: dwight eisenhower's heart attack, government involvement in american diets, heart and cholesterol, meat in the diet  
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Comments

By 1977, the circle was completed when the McGovern Committee produced “Dietary Guidelines” for Americans that urged people to eat less meat and more carbohydrates. It is interesting that the “obesity epidemic” also appeared about that time.


Implied causality, anyone?

Posted by: scientist1 | June 3, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

I don't know about his book in totality but Mr. Schweikart is very wrong to say that no conclusions have been reached about the connections between meat eating and heart disease. Dr. Dean Ornish has devised a diet/exercise program that is now approved for payment by Medicare that reverses heart disease, and that diet excludes meat and most animal protein. Dr. Ornish has written several books on this subject. Also informative in this regard is "The China Study", written by Colin Campbell of Cortland University. As for bad policy, if Americans had heeded the McGovern Committee's Dietary Guidelines decades ago, we would have a much healthier country today. The main reason the policy didn't work is that the meat industry won the battle in Congress against it. This industry pushed for conclusions blaming fats instead of meats, which started the whole "artificial oil" industry. We now know that the "transfats" were more dangerous than butter or other fats in use at the time. So the facts about meat are more complex than Mr. Schweikart implies. If government was not a tool of the various private industries, we would have more common-sense policies, and we could then trust the government to set policies that benefit everyone. I get very tired of conservatives wanting to promote private industry over government to ensure that corporations benefit from government at the expense of ordinary citizens. And when they misstate historical facts to promote their views they should be corrected.

Posted by: slwright1 | June 3, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

"The press latched on, in part because the issue offered a chance for greater government involvement in the lives of Americans..."

For this humdinger, you offer even less proof (supportive documentation) than the people you are blasting offered for their hyposthesis connecting meat and coronary disease. In fact, your wording implies an agenda that undermines your whole argument.

Posted by: God666 | June 3, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

"The press latched on, in part because the issue offered a chance for greater government involvement in the lives of Americans..."

For this humdinger, you offer even less proof (supportive documentation) than the people you are blasting offered for their hyposthesis connecting meat and coronary disease. In fact, your wording implies an agenda that undermines your whole argument.

Posted by: God666 | June 3, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Interesting article, and the item about the lack of hard evidence linking cholesterol to heart disease is indeed accurate.

However, rather than supporting an anti-government agenda, that particular fact is more an illustration of how the drug companies, with Republican help, have successfully bamboozled millions into taking statin drugs with no evidence that they prevent disease.

It's fairly easy to drum up examples of government stupidity and meddling and thereby discredit ANY government intervention, but when government plays its role properly, which it often does, it protects us from rampant corporate greed. The guy out to make a buck simply doesn't CARE if his product kills you or your kids, we need something, even something flawed, to blunt the worst excesses of the marketplace.

Posted by: info53 | June 3, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: jeffyrose | June 4, 2010 5:18 AM | Report abuse

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